NEWS OF THE WEEK
ENVIRONMENT
March 25, 2002
Volume 80, Number 12
CENEAR 80 12 p. 9
ISSN 0009-2347
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REPRIEVE FOR MTBE
California governor pushes back phaseout date for gasoline additive

CHERYL HOGUE

Sales of gasoline blended with an oxygen-boosting additive may continue in California for a year longer than expected.

Citing concerns about gasoline supplies and prices, Gov. Gray Davis (D) has extended the state's phaseout deadline for methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) from the end of this year to Dec. 31, 2003.

Three years ago, Davis ordered MTBE phased out of gasoline sold in California because the state's drinking water supplies increasingly are contaminated with the chemical, which imparts a bad smell and taste to water. MTBE is widely used to make the cleaner-burning gasoline that, under the Clean Air Act, must be sold in polluted urban areas.

Because refiners can now make cleaner-burning gasoline without the addition of oxygenates such as MTBE, Davis asked EPA to waive a Clean Air Act mandate requiring such fuel to contain 2% oxygen by weight. But last year, EPA rejected that request. This means that, as MTBE is phased out, refiners will have to blend ethanol, another oxygenate, into gasoline sold in California.

Current production, transportation, and distribution of ethanol is "insufficient" to allow California to make the switch without gasoline price spikes and shortages, according to Davis. Current estimates are that the state would need to import between 750 million and 900 million gal of ethanol per year.

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"We will watch developments very carefully as we decide how to proceed with the transition to ethanol," Davis says, adding that he would consider changing the MTBE deadline again if necessary.

The Renewable Fuels Association, which represents ethanol makers, criticized Davis and urged California refiners to end the use of MTBE voluntarily by the end of 2002.

"Gov. Davis' about-face on the MTBE phaseout schedule is completely unjustified and places political expediency ahead of safe drinking water," says Bob Dinneen, president of the association.

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